Grant Chu Covell
[November 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:1.]
I first encountered Franco Donatoni’s music in a stack of discarded reviewer’s copies. Perhaps I was taken by the familiar names of the performers, or the colorful CD booklet, or that most of the music had single word titles except for that enigmatic German phrase which somehow seemed familiar. The passion, colorfulness, and fluid qualities of his music struck me immediately, and I was hooked. Scores and elucidating analyses in English were impossible to find, and my understanding of his music grew through the purest method possible, repeated listening of the music itself.
On those rare occasions when my fellow composer/musician friends allow me to play DJ for them and let me needle-drop them through my current faves and obsessions, Donatoni is almost always in the stack. “Listen to these colors!” “Listen to how he balances these instruments.” “Listen to the joy here, the anger there.”
I learned from a friend who knows folks that studied with Donatoni, that Donatoni was often unpredictable in ways that The Guardian only hints at. Even though it fits his character, it is unbelievable to me that Donatoni would have brought a loaded gun into a student’s lesson, and have set it down on the table before commencing the lesson. I think hot coffee is the most dangerous thing to have ever been on the table in my lessons.
Donatoni was a vied for and immensely popular teacher, creating an atelier that would ape his methods and learn the mysteries of his craft. This in itself is not the ideal function of a school: Ferneyhough once contrasted his own teaching style by asserting how he refuses to teach his personal “toolbox,” but insists upon guiding students to help them create their own.
My first reaction on hearing of Donatoni’s death was totally selfish: I’d never have the chance to meet him. Of course, I haven’t made the effort either. But while Donatoni was alive, his output was boundless and infinite, and there would always be the opportunity to discovery a new piece. But now all Donatoni is finite, and it’s sad that his unique sound world can be completely charted and is now bound and closed.